Ruth Long’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: Burn For Her
A spark neglected makes a mighty fire. ~Robert Herrick~
Bristow stood on the back of the ladder truck, pouring over blueprints. The building to his left was fully engulfed but the one to his right was still salvageable. Side by side burns didn’t fit the pattern. And since it was his job to find patterns and prevent further fires, he was beyond frustrated.
A half-dozen arsons in one month had shredded his reputation and put his career in limbo. The city was living in terror, the county fire chief had all but put a target on his back and the governor’s office had him in their crosshairs. Damn it! Why couldn’t he catch this guy? What was he missing?
A white shirt from the sixty-third prescient approached, handed him a missive and disappeared into the fray. He opened the envelope, and slid out a piece of paper that read, ‘Go out of service and prep for a hot drill in the occupancy.’
Shoving the paper into his pants pocket, he jumped to the asphalt, opened the back door of the truck and grabbed his gear, breezing through the doff and don in less than the prescribed minute.
Slinging a second bag and tank over his shoulder, he headed towards the building on the right. Didn’t know what he was walking into, but he wasn’t going to pass up a chance to negotiate with this guy.
A bulky man with sallow skin and ginger hair stood in front of the main door, fully outfitted in fire gear, helmet tucked under his arm. “Captain Bristow. So glad you could join me. Come in.”
Bristow was no hero, but he crossed the threshold, and found himself in a spacious reception area.
The ginger perched on the edge of a desk. “Take off your helmet but leave the tank running, Captain. That’s good. Here’s the thing. I’m feeling unconscionably sentimental today. Bad for me but good for you.”
“I’m listening.” And he was, intently, even as he was scanning the area for movement and mentally scrambling to figure out who this was,
“Gotta say, I’m a bit miffed you don’t seem to recognize me. We’ve known each other a long time, Captain. Going on nearly fifteen years.”
Bristow’s heart stuttered. Fifteen years. His first year with the department. He’d been twenty-five. Just back from active duty. If he’d thought four years in the military was rough as it got, the tyranny of arsons that summer taught him otherwise.
“I see you’re taking that walk down memory lane, Captain. Good times, weren’t they?”
The worst year of his life. He’d nearly quit the department. The loss of lives and structures had ended in one huge fireball, the mother of all arsons, and nearly killed him. That he’d saved a life in those last few moments was the only thing that levied the horror.
“By now, you’re probably arriving at the moment we met. Do you remember? It was face to face, over the body of a college student. A rather pretty young thing, wasn’t she. And you were so chivalrous, carrying her out of the building, careful as if she were a delicate china doll.”
He could still see her, crumpled on the floor like a broken and discarded toy, dark hair streaming across her shoulders, bare feet bloody and pierced with shards of glass. He’d carried her down three flights of stairs and out of the building.
“But she wasn’t the sweet helpless little baby-doll you expected, was she? Oh, you should have seen your face when you found out! Dark as it is right now, just remembering. She was the devil’s daughter, wasn’t she? And the bitch of it was that you burned for her, didn’t you, Bristow? Didn’t you?!”
God help him, he had. Hadn’t ever given into it. Hadn’t ever gotten over it.
“Now that I have your gut twisted up nice and tight, I’m gonna blow your mind. I helped save her that day too. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true. And just as surprising is the fact that I didn’t set that fire. Man, if you could see your face right now! You thought it was me all this time, didn’t you?! But it wasn’t. It was the devil’s fire.”
No! That couldn’t be true! Why would the man light a building knowing his daughter was inside?
“Makes you sick inside, thinking about it, doesn’t it? I lost all respect for him that day. Probably was a good thing for us all. Kept me from burning all these years.”
Bristow could hardly get the words out. “How do you know all this, Watts?”
“I was there that day, tailing him. Wanted to learn from the master. Steven Knox. Arsonist extraordinaire. But that afternoon, he did something different, deviated from his usual behavior. He went upstairs, into one of the dorm rooms and put his hands on one of the girls. I didn’t understand at first. Started to believe that he was just some pervert using fire to cover his trail. Fires are one thing. Females are another. No way was I going to let him hurt her.”
“What did you do?”
Anger flashed in Watts stony blue eyes. “What any person in their right mind would do. Killed him, of course. The girl was unconscious, so I didn’t have to worry about witnesses. Only unpleasant thing about it was listening to him babble about how imperative it was that he eradicate his seed. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to hear his neck snap. After, I started scanning the firefighters, looking for someone brawny enough to carry Knox’s baby girl to safety. You know the rest of that little scenario.”
Yes he did. All too well. The rush to the hospital. The days at her bedside. The revulsion of learning who she was and yet being unable to leave her alone and vulnerable to the inquiries and indignities. The pain of going his own way once the hospital and courts were finally done with them.
“I gave her to you, Bristow, and how did you repay me? By walking away from her. I don’t get it. What? You don’t like girls? You couldn’t get past her DNA? You were worried it was just Stockholm Syndrome? You know what? I don’t really care what it was because the bottom line is, you blew it.”
Was he really going to stand here and let this psycho lecture him while the building burned down around them? “Enough with the chit chat, Watts. Even if it all went down the way you say, and you didn’t have anything to do with the Gaspar fire, I know you set this one and the five that came before it.”
Watts smiled. “So I did, my friend. You have to give me credit for holding out this long. Only thing you care about is this job, so I was forced to burn you out of hiding.”
“What makes you think I won’t drag you out that door right now and hand you over to my superiors?”
His smile cracked into a jagged laugh. “Just a little thing I like to call love, and she’s waiting for you, three floors up, just like old times. But before you go, I gotta know something, Jim. Are you willing to burn for her? Because that’s the only way you’re getting up those stairs. I put her in your hands once upon a time but you cut her loose. So I’ll ask you again. Will you burn for her?”
His windpipe was constricted. “Yes.”
“If you go up those stairs, it means I’ll walk away a free man. You still want to burn for her?”
His skin was icy as the dead of winter. “Yes.”
“If you go up those stairs, you leave that second gear bag and tank here. You still willing to burn for her?”
His chest was a bloody mess skewered on splintered ribs. “Yes, damn you.”
“I hope so, Jim, because if you don’t step up, or if you back down this time, I’ll be the one to stand in for you and neither one of us wants that, do we? So, tell me. Will you burn for her? Because I will if you don’t.”
Bristow jammed on his helmet, automatically checking the tank time. Fifteen minutes to find her and get out of the building. When he looked up, Watts was gone.
He took the stairs fast as he could, fighting the weight of the gear, his body protesting every ounce of it, his mind shrieking against every moment lost. The fire was turning, was bearing down on him and it was all he could do to hold the panic at bay.
He burst through the third floor door and ran down the corridor, kicking in doors and searching for her, finding her at last, draped across an old desk, alive but unconscious.
He stripped down, ignoring the heat searing his skin and the smoke clawing at his lungs, and suited her up in his gear, tank and all. Lifting her over his shoulder, he headed back down the hall.
His skin was blistering and his lungs screaming before he hit the stairs. Rubble hampered his progress down the steps and by the second landing he could only keep upright by leaning against the wall, though it scorched his shoulder and forearm.
He made it to the ground floor before collapsing.
Strong hands lifted him, propped him against the wall and fed him air from a fresh tank. “Stay with me, Captain. There’s a good fellow. Steady now.”
Bristow opened his eyes, saw Watts’ face, tried to push him away.
“Don’t fight me, Jim. Let the oxygen feed your body. Better now? I had to stick around to make sure you followed through, didn’t I? Stop fussing. Adriana is fine. See? And you’re going to make sure she stays that way, right? Because we have a deal, don’t we? You burn for her or I will.”
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